Friday, October 1, 2010

The Thrilla in Manila

For me, it is really incredible to think that it has been 35 years since the "Thrilla in Manila," the third and final fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.

Few rivalries between individual athletes could match Ali and Frazier in the 1970s. The nation truly was transfixed every time they fought. I always felt that was because they represented — symbolically, at least — each side of the cultural divide that existed in those days. Ali, with his rebellious nature and his refusal to fight in the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War, seemed to represent the doves, whereas the obedient, establishmentarian Frazier represented the hawks in American society.

I was a great admirer of Ali as a boy, and one of the things I appreciated about him was that, after he won the title from George Foreman, he brought boxing back to the people. Prior to the second Ali championship era, most fights were shown only on closed–circuit TV. But after Ali defeated Foreman, most of his title defenses were on commercial TV.

Of course, at that point in his career, few of Ali's foes were truly on his level. But that didn't matter. I remember eagerly looking forward to those fights.

But the "Thrilla in Manila" was an exception, in more ways than one. Not only did it match Ali with a worthy adversary, but the fight was televised by the fledgling HBO network — which was then, as it is now, a subscription service — and its broadcast via satellite from the Philippines can be reasonably said to have been a pioneering event in the development of modern satellite TV transmission.

And, too, I always felt that, if it wasn't the initial inspiration, the "Thrilla" must have had some influence on the story that was told in the original "Rocky." At the very least, it was a damn good example of art imitating life — or perhaps anticipating is a better word.

In Manila, the defending champion Ali and his entourage did not take the fight seriously, believing they were doing Frazier a favor by giving him one more moment in the spotlight. But Frazier took the fight very seriously and went 14 rounds with Ali before losing by technical knockout.

Ali — whose blase approach to the fight encouraged many distractions that were unrelated to what he needed to do in the ring — was suitably impressed with Frazier. Before the fight, he believed Frazier was just a shell of his formerly dominant self after his humiliating loss to Foreman two years earlier.

But after the fight, Ali told anyone who would listen that Frazier "is the greatest fighter of all times ... next to me."

That was pretty high praise coming from a man who fought Sonny Liston (twice), George Foreman and Ken Norton, among others.

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